Get the Most out of Targeted Campus Tours

Making plans to visit colleges right about now? Many families, especially those with high school seniors, are doing just that. Before setting out, however, it’s a good idea to have done your homework. Taking campus tours without first determining what you’re looking for can lead to both unnecessary expenses and needless anxiety in the college search process.

Guidance counselors stress the importance of matching students with colleges in at least three areas — academic, social, and financial. Lee Bierer, founder of College Admissions Strategies in Charlotte, North Carolina, calls this the “trifecta of fit.” Will the student feel challenged academically but not overwhelmed by the college he or she is considering?

Equally important, Bierer advises students to align their expected majors with colleges that offer them. If, for example, you hope to become an engineer, don’t bother visiting a school with no engineering faculty.

Socially, does the college attract people whose interests and values are similar to yours? If you’re planning to make Greek life part of your college experience, are fraternities and sororities popular at the schools you’re looking at? Are sports, at either the intercollegiate or club level, a big deal on campus? Would you prefer to attend college in a large city or small town, and would its climate be to your liking?

Bierer advises families to understand the financial landscape by starting early and calculating their Expected Family Contribution, or EFC, through the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

“There is a lot of merit money and need-based aid available, and families shouldn’t remove colleges from their lists because they assume they won’t be able to afford them. But we don’t want students to be saddled with debt, either,” she cautioned.

Chris Turany of University Funding Professionals in Vadnais Heights counsels students to identify colleges where their GPA and test scores put them in the top 25 percent of incoming freshmen.

“Being in the top 25 percent typically enables the student to be considered for merit-based financial aid,” he said.

Turany recommends that students visit at least six campuses but not more than 10, once they’ve determined whether they would likely be in the top quarter of the freshman class, and that the colleges fit the location, size, major availability and affordability criteria. That way, he said, “schools can compete against one another” with financial aid packages to entice you to enroll.

Private, one-on-one tours are preferred, Turany added, and they should include both the college-bound student and at least one parent. With an eye to the family’s educational future, siblings whose interests are similar and who are only a year or two away from college might also be included on the tour. If possible, it’s best that the family’s tour guide majors in the academic area that the student wants to pursue. “You wouldn’t want an art history major to lead you on a college tour if you plan to study chemistry,” he said.

Visiting colleges should either confirm or deny what the student’s research has already told him or her about them. Tours should leave students asking whether a particular college feels right for them, if that’s just the place they would most want to spend the next four years of their young lives.